Theo Jackson and Willem Oosthuizen at one of their court hearings in Middelburg. The pair got hefty jail terms for their heinous attack on Victor Mlotshwa. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

There were soft whispers and gentle gasps in the high court sitting in Middelburg in Mpumalanga when the judgment in the horrendous coffin case was read out.

Theo Jackson was sentenced to 14 years in jail and Willem Oosthuizen to 11 for their ghastly attack on Victor Mlotshwa.

In a case that outraged a nation, the pair had pushed Mlotshwa into a coffin in August last year. They filmed the incident with their cellphones and could be heard threatening to burn him alive. The footage was shared with friends and leaked onto social media, which is how it came to the police and national prosecutor’s attention.

The two men deserved to be severely punished. Their acts represent a type of vile depravity that has no place in our society.

Both men were born in the late 1980s, which meant they were Mandela’s children, and teenagers in the early 2000s. They have no excuse for their blatant disregard for black life.

The defence attorneys and advocates argued that there were gaps in Mlotshwa’s testimony. That he hadn’t exhibited physical wounds, nor was their proof that he had suffered psychological trauma.

They accused him of riding the wave of public outrage once the video was released, and contended the issue had become a platform for political parties to extend their reach. Everyone wanted a piece of the two accused for their own political gain, they argued.

I found the round of cross-examination of Mlotshwa during sentencing proceedings last week to be almost as dehumanising as the incident.

Not only was he made to relive his experience, he was told that he hadn’t been traumatised.

I don’t know why the prosecutor didn’t ask the defence if they wanted to experience a few minutes in a coffin to get a sense of how it might feel.

To put a living human being into a coffin - be it to instil fear in a thief (as the lawyers argued), as a joke (which many of their supporters say happened) or in a bid to murder a man (which the court concluded) - is no way to treat a fellow human being.

If Mlotshwa had allegedly stolen copper cables, or anything else, they could have held him until the police arrived. They stole his dignity because they knew they could. They filmed it and shared it because “they wanted to show what they could do to a black man”, as the prosecutor argued.

I don't harbour any sympathy for the two men but admit that the sentences made me uncomfortable. But not for the reasons you might suppose.

White South Africans have not paid the price for the crimes of apartheid. The TRC allowed instruments of the state to get away with murder, with often little more than an empty apology. The economy and 73% of agricultural land still sits in white farmers’ hands.

Black workers have been used and abused, discarded at will, with little interest from the state or the public.

In many ways, the post-apartheid government allowed white farmers to live in their own bubble; many with old regalia, like old South African flags.

It is in the urban areas where polite middle-class and rich whites have been able to expertly navigate the new order with deft sophistication, a trait their cousins in the rural areas lack. It doesn’t mean they are less racist; they are just more resourceful, adaptable to the new context. They know which language to use.

But it is precisely these majority white-owned corporates, working in tandem with the new black elite and the government, that have helped deepen the fault lines and increase inequality on the ground.

Of course, some white farmers living in the nostalgia of a glorious past can’t comprehend that today it is white capital facilitating the corrupt government tenders or cooking the books and transacting shady deals.

With climate change and drought affecting the agricultural sector, and a tanking economy, farmers are struggling to absorb the costs of incessant crime; the racism left to snooze is reawakening.

Racial intolerance has spread to new spaces of contestation. Consider the racism on social media, the endless pleas for international assistance to stem “a white genocide”; and consider the fight for racial dominance in lower-income fast food joints such as KFC.

I understand that justice must consider the social and political ramifications of the judgment; to remain relevant it must be a fair arbitrator of the law.

The two men are guilty of a heinous crime and ought to be punished. But is 14 and 11 years fair in the larger context? Are the two men key transgressors whose punishment will set a needful precedent for racists everywhere, or are they symptoms of a system that always seems to let the big crooks get away?

I have a nagging feeling that the court handed out hefty sentences to the lowest-common denominator. It is as if the court wanted to compensate for the ghosts it never put away.

* Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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